Building Better Cooperation for “Megapolitan America”
Megaregion Working Group tackles issues for more than 11 million people
September 29, 2020: This year has brought powerful reminders that many key issues that affect the greater Sacramento region are not confined to our borders. Viruses, wildfires and their smoke, and global recessions have no regard for lines on a map and require well-coordinated responses.
Some of these same forces are also accelerating long-standing connections and growth trends that tie Northern California metropolitan areas together. So this was the right year to relaunch the Megaregion Working Group, which brings together board members and staff from three adjacent Metropolitan Planning Organizations: SACOG, San Joaquin Council of Governments, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Together, these MPOs serve more than 11 million residents of 16 contiguous counties, stretching from Santa Clara in the southwest to Placer in the northeast.
Before 2020, the working group had last met in 2015 and reviving it to boost interregional cooperation has been a key priority for SACOG board chair Lucas Frerichs, who serves on the working group along with SACOG directors John Allard, Don Saylor, and Darren Suen. In its 2018 report on the Sacramento region’s economic competitiveness, the Brookings Institution identified the region’s “high levels of government fragmentation” as an impediment. Brookings also sees Covid-19 as having revealed the need for “equity-based regional governance institutions that align with the map of our lives to coordinate relief and recovery faster and fairly.” Its report on megaregion governance explains the accelerating trend of two or more established metropolitan areas consolidating, leading to “a ‘megapolitan America’ in which jobs, housing, and consumption tend to take place across multiple municipal jurisdictions more than ever before.”
The key example of this trend the report cited was the Bay Area megaregion, including the SACOG region, where “homelessness, displacement, rising housing costs, traffic, and super-commuting have become increasingly untenable.” It noted that as of 2016, Stockton was the only Metropolitan Statistical Area in the U.S. where a majority of working residents were employed in other MSAs, with the largest single flow being 20 percent to San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward. Managing the transportation impacts of this trend thus becomes a higher priority for SACOG, which is why it supported the Stockton Diamond rail separation project in its recent successful application for a federal BUILD transportation grant. Coordinating support on collective applications is the beginning of a strategy for boosting megaregion transportation investments.
The Stockton Diamond project will untangle the worst freight rail bottleneck in California by separating two north-south mainline tracks from two east-west mainline tracks. That will allow the expansion of the Amtrak San Joaquins and Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) passenger services between the Sacramento region and the Bay Area.
Such super-sizing of commutes and traffic means that transportation planning needs to be coordinated over a much broader area, and so one of the first priorities for the Megaregion Working Group is to strengthen the relationship and coordination among the three MPOs through a memorandum of understanding or shared workplan that spells out shared efforts, data and assumptions, and projects. At its third meeting on August 28, staff briefed working group members on what aligning the megaregion partners’ long-range transportation plans and Sustainable Communities Strategies could look like and what the potential risks might be.
The working group has also formed Megaregion Exchange Groups, collaborative efforts among the three MPOs’ staff to share best -practice research, share information on programs and projects, coordinate legislative activities, and discuss strategies for regional growth through regular, informal meetings. The first two groups cover topics on housing and new mobility/telework.
At its latest meeting, the working group heard from members of the recently formed Megaregion Business Group followed by a discussion of how these two groups can work together. The business group consists of the Bay Area Council, Greater Sacramento Economic Council, Opportunity Stanislaus, Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce, and San Joaquin Partnership.
Frerichs said he was pleased with the progress of the working group and looked forward to more: “I’m encouraged by the commitment to cooperation and coordination we have seen between the three MPOs in the working group. We all realize that in the face of the growth trends that increasingly tie our distinct regions together, we need to be bold as we seek to align and streamline our work. If the economic downturn related to the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that increased regional collaboration will be key to achieving our shared goals.”